Jewish World Review May 19, 2006 / 21 Iyar, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Fun with numbers | It sounds like a gigantic Sudoku puzzle, or maybe one of those abstruse mathematical challenges like finding the largest prime number. (That search is now into a million digits.) It's the kind of challenge that fascinates theoretical mathematicians. And also the National Security Agency.

It seems three giant telecoms — AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth — have been supplying the counterspy agency with billions of phone numbers since 9/11, when the danger of terrorist attacks finally got the country's attention. Forcibly.

The object of this numbers game is to see if some immense, computerized data search would reveal a suspicious numerical pattern — say, phone calls between a known terrorist overseas and a series of phone calls in this country.

Talk about connecting the dots, this sounds like a search for something a lot smaller than a needle in a haystack. Maybe a better comparison would be looking for traces of where the needle had been. Good luck. To us innumerate types, finding such a pattern sounds impossible, or at least improbable to the nth degree.

Then again, who would have thought only a few years back that one could type a name or phrase into a computer, and within seconds, no matter where it appears in literature or history or current events or anywhere else, the phrase appears on your screen in context, duly sourced, with cross-references and maybe an ad on top. Today it's called googling, and the big complaint about it is that it may take whole seconds too long.

For that matter, even as far back as the Second World War, who would have believed Alan Turing and his fellow Brits at Bletchley Park would break the Nazis' unbreakable Enigma code?

Not too long ago, a global network of computers deciphered one of Enigma's last remaining secret messages — during the computers' downtime. For those giants of Artificial Intelligence, it must have been a breeze — like solving the Mystery of the Great Pyramid during a lunch break.

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Strange and marvelous things, numbers, almost as strange and marvelous as the creatures who find patterns in them. And look for more.

The odds may be against the mathematical sleuths at NSA in their quixotic mission, but if it can be accomplished, and even if it can't, human beings are going to try to pull it off, strange and marvelous and endlessly curious creatures that we are.

Another name for Homo sapiens is Homo faber , man the toolmaker. In this case, the tools are those giant computer banks. And so long as we have such tools, some brain — like a four-star general named Michael Hayden, who once headed the NSA — will want to see what these battalions of brainiacs can come up with.

To some of us, the whole idea sounds somewhere between highly improbable and definitely nuts, but there was a time when Einstein's idea of a space-time continuum sounded nuts, too. Just because we don't understand something doesn't mean better minds won't — or won't detect a terrorist cell lurking somewhere in the forest, the universe, of numbers.

But it's not the mathematical wonder of it all, or the question of whether the whole project is just plain screwy, that intrigues minds of a constitutional bent. The question they ask isn't whether it can be done, but whether it can be done legally. Isn't this a violation of our privacy, to have the government go through billions of phone numbers — of which ours might be a part, however infinitesimal?

There are at least a couple of court decisions (like Smith v. Maryland , a 1979 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court) that make a distinction between eavesdropping on private conversations without a warrant, which may raise constitutional questions, and going through telephone company records in search of the bad guys, which may not. But the law on this point is still a work in slow progress, as opposed to high-speed Internet.

The beginning and end of the constitutional debate over NSA's latest numbers game remains the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . . ." That's the key word: unreasonable. What's reasonable mathematically may not be reasonable constitutionally.

This whole scheme strikes me, like so much else in the world of numbers beyond my ken, as ultra-reasonable, like Newton's squeezing the idea of gravity out of mathematical proofs. NSA's data mine sounds like the Manhattan Project of numbers, and it, too, could prove a dramatic success.

But is it reasonable law? As with so many other constitutional questions, the answer may depend on context. And motive. Things unreasonable in peacetime can become reasonable in war. What may be illegal snooping in one context may, in another, become a prudent precaution taken in good faith. Like running billions of phone numbers through vast computers to see what dangerous patterns show up.

When the existence of this experiment was revealed, as almost any top secret is these days, I found myself less worried than assured. I had no idea our intelligence agencies were so imaginative and enterprising. Not to say intellectually adventuresome.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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